One day in the fall of 2006, I met a young Marine lance corporal who shouldered that burden—the burden of the watchstander. The burden of those left behind, wondering why it was their buddy, and not they, who paid the price. I was traveling the road from Fallujah to Habbiniyah that day. Although we had three observation posts—OPs—on the road, it was still littered with IEDs. The first one was called OP Redskins, located on an overpass over a railroad track. I had visited the OP before and planned to push through it this day as we were running late. Engineers further down the road were still sweeping for IEDs, though, and we had to wait until they were complete. So, we entered the serpentine of concrete jersey barriers and made our way into the OP to wait. On our way in, I noticed a blackened hole in the road surface, surrounded by pieces of shattered concrete—a reminder of the constant threat.
Once we were inside the OP, I got out to stretch my legs and noticed that most of the Marines were sleeping, obviously having spent the previous night either on post or on patrol. Doing my best not to disturb them—and hoping that no one would start waking them up because “some General is here”—I headed to the guard tower at the west end of the OP. I could see the silhouette of a Marine standing watch so I decided to go up and say hello. I approached the ladder, sounded off, “Neller coming up” (it is not good to sneak up on a guy with a loaded weapon) and climbed up into the post. As I entered I was greeted by a Marine Lance Corporal. He was about six feet tall and lean, with a scraggly moustache. His gear was clean and neat and he was clearly wide awake.
Being wide awake as a watchstander is no small thing. First off, being on post, especially if you are doing it right, is an exercise in interminable boredom. Second, this Marine had probably been up most of the night on patrol, as he had been for nights on end. When you are in combat the first thing you notice in men is their eyes. The eyes of a combat Marine, regardless of their age, are usually somewhat recessed and dark underneath. These are the eyes of men who are tired, have seen hardship, danger, and sometimes the carnage of combat. This Marine had combat eyes.